Today Steve Ambrose joins the project with the battle of the Eastern Solomons. A former S-3 NFO, Steve has a wonderful blog that runs the gamut from hand-crafted wooden canoes to an on-line novel about life at sea (‘On The Line‘).
Coral Sea was the scene of the first carrier vs carrier battle where tactically, the Japanese forces may have won, but strategically, their push south was stopped. Midway was the second – open ocean, vast distances and a signatory win for the beleaguered American forces in the Pacific. It would not, however, be the last major carrier vs carrier battle. For the third engagement, we have the Battle of the Eastern Solomons… – SJS
The South Pacific is literally choked with islands – depending on how you define an island there are over 900 in the Solomon archipelago alone. Americans tend to think of the Pacific as an unbroken expanse of open ocean probably due to the fact that there is nothing to run into between California and the Hawaiian islands. But if you continue to push west it becomes a confusing maze rather quickly. There is quite a bit of volcanic rock between Pearl Harbor and Sidney. More quick study reveals that Australia is much closer to Japan than any of her allied partners. Take away the watchful eyes of modern satellites, computers, and information technology and you can begin to fathom the problems faced by the Allies in 1942. Tracking the Japanese expansion was largely guesswork based on limited intelligence, radio intercepts, and the old eyeball.
In a very simplistic sense the entire Pacific Campaign can be reduced down to the Allied effort to maintain open sea lanes and lines of communication with Australia and Japan’s counter-effort to cut the same. Air superiority was the key whether land or sea based and even the carriers depended on permanent bases for supplies, ammo, and fuel. Control of local real estate was a critical key to success in the Pacific. Most of the key battles involved islands with air strips or islands that were deemed conducive to the construction of new runways. Since the size of the geographic area involved was so immense it was not uncommon for Battle Groups to cover thousands of miles undetected. It seems incomprehensible today that a Carrier Battle Group could transit such distances in secrecy but there were no satellites or GPS systems in 1942. Even radar technology was in its infancy. The US had a slight advantage over the Japanese in both the gear and experienced technicians but it was still a new technology. Radio gear was also rather crude and problematic by today’s standards adding to confusion in the air during combat.
Keep all this in mind as we review the third major battle between aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theater: The Battle of the Eastern Solomons.
In order to prevent Allied support and/or staging in Australia, Japan needed to control the entire chain of the Eastern Solomons. The US Marine amphibious assault of Guadalcanal on 7-9 August 1942 and capture of the unfinished airstrip, re-named Henderson Field, opened up a gap in the barrier Japan was building north of Australia. This Allied foothold had to be addressed. On 16 August, Rear Admiral Tanaka, embarked in the light cruiser Jintsu departed Truk with a convoy of eight destroyers escorting three transports headed for Guadalcanal with a naval landing force intent on re-taking the island (1). The location of Japanese fleet assets, specifically carrier task forces, during August 1942 was sketchy at best with both US and Australian intelligence working frantically to decipher Japanese message traffic. Finally on 22 August message routing into Truk led PACFLT to assume a carrier task force was headed south. CINCPAC still wasn’t convinced (2). Neither side knew where the other’s carriers were located or headed: the Americans thought there might be a force pushing south toward Guadalcanal and the Japanese were fairly certain US carriers were somewhere to the southeast but search planes had been unable to locate them.
Japan had a sizable force, in addition to the transport convoy headed to reinforce Guadalcanal, headed south. It included the heavy carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku along with the light carrier Ryujo. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan, dubbed Operation KA, was to finally destroy the American carriers while simultaneously supporting the amphibious force on its way to Guadalcanal (3). The Americans did indeed have three carriers operating southeast of Guadalcanal strategically beyond the range of Japanese aircraft based out of Rabaul. Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp were all waiting for the Japanese attempt to reinforce/retake the island. Meanwhile, the US Marines holding Henderson Field were constantly harassed by Japanese air and naval forces. Daily bombing raids out of Rabaul hampered work on the airfield while nightly runs by destroyers and cruisers down the channel called “The Slot” (4) kept the Marines on edge with naval gunfire. Keeping the Marines supplied was a hazardous mission for Allied ships, usually attempted under cover of darkness. In the pre-dawn hours of 22 August, US destroyers Blue and Henley were pushing ahead of a small supply convoy when Blue was hit in the stern by a torpedo that took out her rudder and propellers rendering her dead in the water. She was taken in tow by Henley but eventually scuttled when it became evident that she wouldn’t make safe harbor before encountering the enemy(5).
With both sides focused on Guadalcanal the problem of locating the opposing forces would soon resolve itself. The American presence on the island was slowly strengthening and the airfield was at least functional as illustrated by flight operations. This fact worried the Japanese to no end and they hastened to intervene before a significant build-up could be accomplished. Patrols pushed further in search of the American carriers. Admiral Tanaka, with his convoy escort force, became increasingly concerned about his lack of air support as he approached Guadalcanal. He was told by his superiors that if the Americans were not located by 24 August that the carrier task force would provide cover, otherwise he was on his own (6). Presumably to weaken the chances of air attacks launched from Guadalcanal, strikes were launched against the island on the 22nd and 23rd but both were turned back by weather.
On the 23rd Japanese submarines, scouting the area ahead of the carrier force, spotted US carrier aircraft. Another American aircraft spotted Japanese cruisers and destroyers (deployed well ahead of the carriers) but still no carriers. Additionally a PBY spotted Tanaka’s convoy at much closer range and, when no fighter cover appeared, maintained contact for a while. Things were heating up quickly. At 1510 on the 23rd, Saratoga launched a strike against the convoy but weather and a course change by Tanaka kept the strike group from acquiring their target. The planes landed after dark on Guadalcanal.
Based on an erroneous intelligence report that still placed the Japanese carriers in Truk, Admiral Fletcher pulled the Wasp and her escorts and sent them south to refuel. Wasp and her pilots would sit out the third clash of Naval Aviation in the South Pacific(7).
The early hours of 24 August found the Japanese fleet steaming southeast. Even Tanaka had turned back toward Guadalcanal the night before after successfully evading the strike group. To assist Tanaka, the light carrier Ryujo along with three escorts, had been directed south to cover the convoy. Both Japanese and American planes searched in vain until a PBY spotted the Ryujo at 0935(8). The whereabouts of the heavy carriers remained a mystery and Fletcher was hesitant to commit assets against the smaller carrier when he knew there were larger, more dangerous targets lurking out there. Shortly after noon the Japanese light carrier launched a strike against Guadalcanal which Saratoga detected with her radar. With this development, Fletcher could wait no longer and launched a strike off Saratoga against Ryujo.
The Japanese strike against Guadalcanal was met by Marine and Army Air Force planes and it quickly degenerated into a fur-ball in which both sides boasted winning numbers although post analysis revealed each lost only three fighters(9). The American carriers were finally spotted by a Japanese sea plane around 1400. It was quickly shot down before the crew could complete a contact report but its course and speed coupled with time aloft allowed for a rough position on the US forces.
Shortly after the strike group launched from Saratoga against the light carrier and her escorts, US planes spotted the heavy carriers headed south but in the confusion that rendered the radio net all but useless these reports didn’t make it to Fletcher in time for him to divert the strike group. The combined bombing and torpedo runs against Ryujo eventually sank her but she didn’t go down until later that night so it was months before her loss was confirmed.
Based on data compiled from various scouting missions and partial contact reports, the Japanese knew roughly where the American carriers were and launched their first strike at 1455(10). A little over an hour later Enterprise observed an intermittent contact on her radar and knew she had a strike inbound. Both US carriers started launching aircraft in anticipation of the enemy arrival. The Japanese strike was supposed to split the attack between both carriers but they gained contact on Enterprise first and with Wildcats swarming around them they began diving on the Enterprise and battleship North Carolina. The strike scored three bomb hits on the carrier causing severe damage. One bomb penetrated the wooden flight deck and several decks below it before detonating. The blast penetrated the hull below the waterline and set fires below decks but her damage control team had her patched up and recovering aircraft an hour after the last bomb hit.
Enterprise was not out of danger, however. As a precaution during the bombing her steering compartment had been sealed including the ventilation system. Heat from the fires and the steering gear caused the compartment to become an oven. The men became incapacitated and when the steering motor failed, jamming the rudder hard over, the ship circled helplessly as it watched another wave of Japanese planes on radar. Luckily for the crippled ship the strike group had been given a bad steer and never established contact with their intended target(11).
After heavy losses in the first strike and the inability of the second to relocate the American carriers, the third was scrubbed. The remaining Japanese carriers turned north to refuel while some of the cruisers and battleships continued to press south looking for targets of opportunity. As the 24th came to a close without contact they reversed and followed their carriers. Enterprise, once she regained steering control, and Saratoga had both turned into the wind to recover aircraft and since their heading happened to be to the southeast they continued that direction to put some sea room between them and their enemy. This clash between carriers had cost the Japanese dearly: one light carrier and seventy-five planes while US losses were limited to twenty-five planes and all her carriers were still afloat. The end of the 24th also marked the end of the carrier battle as action on the 25th only involved land-based aircraft.
Based on bad intelligence that reported two US carriers burning, Tanaka pressed south with his convoy and was spotted by a PBY. Eight Wildcats and eight SBD’s launched from Henderson Field and took out one of the transports plus damaged Jintsu. Later in the morning a flight of B-17’s sank the destroyer Mutsuki while she was alongside the stricken transport. The Japanese launched one more bombing raid against the Marines at Henderson but only inflicted minor damage(12).
Poor coordination and communication were cited by both sides as areas for improvement. With today’s integrated battlespace management it’s hard to fathom the risk and challenges faced by sailors and airmen in 1942. They did what they needed to with what they had and their success speaks highly of their dedication and character.
1. Guadalcanal, Frank, Richard B., Penguin Press, 1990, p. 159.
2. Frank, p. 162.
5. Frank, p.166.
6. Ibid., p. 164.
8. Frank, p. 177.
12. Frank, p. 191.